Bechtel's Avidan discusses future-proofing the U.S.'s energy infrastructure

With the Department of Energy's Quadrennial Energy Review on the country's energy infrastructure expected to be released this month, how can the private sector work toward future-proofing the nation's power infrastructure? During today's OnPoint, Amos Avidan, senior vice president and corporate manager of engineering and technology at Bechtel, discusses the financial and policy challenges to improving the resilience of the U.S. energy infrastructure.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Dr. Amos Avidan, senior vice president and corporate manager of engineering and technology at Bechtel. Amos, thank you for joining me.

Amos Avidan: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Amos, Bechtel has been involved in some of the most significant energy infrastructure projects in the United States, and a current key focus for your company is the idea of future-proofing power infrastructures. What are the primary challenges facing our current infrastructure that require a different approach to how we're currently producing and advancing our energy infrastructure?

Amos Avidan: Well, first of all, I think that energy infrastructure is critical to all infrastructure, you know? We rely more and more on energy. Energy growth is, you know, driving global growth and energy infrastructure, well, we don't think about it, but energy means water. It means power. It means Internet connectivity. It means cellphones working. It means transportation, so people are paying increasing attention to the resiliency and to the sustainability of the global energy infrastructure, including in the United States, of course.

Monica Trauzzi: And is that as a result of climate change? I mean what are some of the key elements that are playing into that decision?

Amos Avidan: Well, I think it's a confluence of several things. It's increased urbanization in the U.S. and elsewhere, which means people live more closely and rely more on energy infrastructure. It means being ready for extreme weather events, which can be caused by global climate change, and of course we are more susceptible to them, as we are closer to the coastlines and we are in more concentrated areas. Superstorm Sandy of course was a very good reminder to us of the importance of the energy infrastructure.

Monica Trauzzi: So what are some of the strategies to making energy infrastructure more resilient?

Amos Avidan: Well, you know, there's been a lot of change in that. In the past, people focused on making individual power plants or individual -- very distinct elements of the infrastructure to be just more hardened, if you wish. And that's still important, but today we recognize much more interdependency between this system.

So one quick example is when Superstorm Sandy hit, for example, and you didn't have electricity for a while. The gas stations in your area wouldn't be able to pump gas because they didn't have a backup system for electricity, or when Hurricane Katrina hit years ago, the pipelines that supply refined products of the Gulf Coast to the Northeast were shut down for a couple of weeks. So there's much more interdependency in the energy infrastructure and hence it's important for us to look at systems and make those systems more resilient for the future, and that's what we call future-proofing.

Monica Trauzzi: So do the technologies and innovations exist to bring our energy infrastructure to the next level?

Amos Avidan: Yes, I think so. The biggest change that we are going through today -- I believe we live in a revolutionary time. The revolutionary time is basically summarized by a few key catchphrases you hear a lot, like the Internet of Things. It's basically the age of information and the amount of information available to us today is many times what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago, and we can make use of this information. We make use of it in our own projects for designing those systems much better to understand the interdependencies where they're good for you, because they're more efficient that way and when you have to decouple them when there's an emergency.

And we also use a lot -- all the vast amount of information, for example. Geographic information systems which not only give you detailed maps of an area, but you can use them to simulate if there is this kind of increase in sea water level and this kind of an extreme weather effect, like a hurricane or a tsunami. How would you protect those systems so we can design for that? And we can use the information to prepare for the disaster, to avoid it if we can, and during the -- when there's an extreme weather event, people tend to use this kind of information, social media and others to react much faster to it. As you know, resiliency means recovering quickly from events that you couldn't stop.

Monica Trauzzi: But what about cost? Is it more costly to bring these sort of more resilient elements of infrastructure online?

Amos Avidan: I think that's a very good question because when you look at the needs globally for investment in infrastructure, they are huge -- trillions of dollars, so we really got to focus on reducing those costs and these technologies do allow us to reduce costs in many ways. For a quick example, because we have so much detailed satellite and laser scanning technologies, we don't have to send as many surveyors to the field. It's safer for them. It's faster. It's less costly. When we design today our big projects and we use three-dimensional models.

Today it's all data-driven, and data is much cheaper than all the physical systems we had in place. So the promise is that the more we use this information, all this vast amount of information, project costs are going to come down. Schedules are going to be reduced and they're more predictable. One of the big concerns about massive infrastructure projects is just costs are getting out of control, so these information technology systems allow you to lower the costs and manage those projects much better, and we do that on all projects today.

Monica Trauzzi: Is there enough of a discussion in Congress and in the federal agencies about infrastructure, resilience, and how do you think these discussions should play into the broader energy policy conversation?

Amos Avidan: Yeah, no. I think there's much more awareness of the need for these discussions and much more awareness of the need to improve our response systems. And this is in response to some of these extreme weather events I mentioned, like Superstorm Sandy. Everybody reacted to it and realized we need to do better. I was involved recently together with many others in the National Petroleum Council study that was just finished in December of last year about how the Department of Energy and other local stakeholders can respond better to extreme events, which cause problems to our energy infrastructure.

And the recommendations are not earth-shattering. They are: cooperate better, have the right channels of communications, respond quicker, and be able to quickly trust each other when you know each other and react better to those systems. One quick example of that is if, let's say you run out of a refined product in one part of the country. If you can bring another one that doesn't meet the same specs, but you get a quick waiver, today a waiver can take months from the Department of Energy.

So if you can quickly do it, then you can supply an area that is short on, let's say, gasoline much quicker. So that's one example. Of course, you know, we are focusing on the U.S., but our projects are global. We do that also in the U.K., in Africa, all over the world.

Monica Trauzzi: This is a fascinating, ongoing discussion. I thank you for your time and your ...

Amos Avidan: Thank you very much, Monica. I enjoyed it.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for coming on the show and thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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